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Walking in the boots of a firefighter

Published June 12, 2007


Before I clambered on to the ladder truck, my biggest worry was that my beltless jean shorts would slip down to my ankles.

But 10 stories above Spring Hill, falling pants were the least of my worries. Imagine the headlines.

There was nothing between me and the ground but firefighter Matt Hirchak. As he stood on the ladder right below me, his professional calm tried to reassure me as I climbed - right foot, left foot.

I'd been warned not to look down. But I was afraid to look up for fear that seeing how high I had to climb might tempt me to quit. I had to climb all the way up. I was a Spring Hill firefighter for a day.

Minutes before, Hernando County Commissioner Diane Rowden, 57, and businesswoman Debbie Druzbick, 45, wife of former School Board member John Druzbick, had climbed to the top. Firefighters had taken bets against us making it. Impressive, they yelled.

We had been invited to spend our Saturday participating in Fire Ops 101, a day of simulation exercises offered by the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District and the firefighters' union Local 2794.

It was billed as an chance for local elected officials and others in the community to walk in a firefighter's boots. There was fake smoke and real fire, but no burning buildings, no spectacular explosions.

"It's all about safety, " said district Chief Kevin Carroll.

It was easy to dismiss Saturday's events as mere public relations, a way to justify all that expensive equipment like the $10, 000 thermal imagers, a way to get the embattled Spring Hill Fire Rescue Department some good press even as folks contemplate whether it should be merged with Hernando County fire services.

I even asked the question before I tried on the boots and the red helmet. But Carroll insisted that this was something the department had talked about for years. They began planning in earnest in January before the merger controversy resurfaced.

That's why they were disappointed with the turnout. Only eight of more than 30 invitees showed up. The no-shows must have known: This exercise wasn't for the fragile or the claustrophobic. Try dragging a spouting hose in 85-degree temperatures in full gear - air pack, gas mask, helmet, hood, coat, trousers and boots. There's nothing like the momentary panic of hooking up your gas mask and the air pack isn't turned on.

Our four-person team - the Druzbicks and Kim Driscoll, 42, an ER nurse at Spring Hill Regional Hospital and I - fought the fire in a burning car. Even with a firefighter talking me through each step, it still took an extra bit of courage to walk right up to a burning car. My heart raced; the adrenaline pumped. For a second I felt like a real firefighter.

Later, we pretended to resuscitate a cardiac arrest victim, even as his wife jumped and yelled hysterically around the room. Despite my faux training, I inserted the air tube into the wrong place. Thanks to Driscoll's ER expertise, though, we managed to save the patient.

For the final simulation, we again dressed in full gear to fight a propane tank fire. John Druzbick, 55, and I doused the flames, then his wife, Debbie, walked up and turned off the valve of the propane tank while flames still licked the cover.

That took some nerve. Then as we retreated, hoses still spewing water, radio alarms went off. A motorcyclist was injured near U.S. 19.

That was no simulation exercise. Saving lives never takes a day off.

[Last modified June 11, 2007, 23:26:45]

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